The Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost Sunday August 8, 2021
1 Kings 19:4-8, Psalm 34:1-8, Ephesians 4:25–5:2, Gospel John 6:35, 41-51
This feels good to be standing in the pulpit of Christ the King Lutheran Church. Thank you, Pastor Derr, for the invitation to preach. A day never goes by that Kathy and I do not remember you fondly and pray for your wellbeing.
I share with you greetings from Pastor Martin Hundertmark at your sister congregation of St. Thomas Church Leipzig with whom I serve as guest pastor:
Dear congregation of Christ the King Lutheran Church,
I send my warmest greetings from the parish of St. Thomas in Leipzig. The last few months have been very difficult for all of us. My colleague Britta Taddiken fell ill with cancer, and the restrictions due to the Coronavirus have hit us all hard. We miss our visitors from the USA, the joint concerts at the Bach Festival, and the meetings of our congregations.
Nevertheless, we are full of hope that many things will be possible again. Pastor Britta Taddiken is doing much better. We are all happy about that. She also sends her best regards.
In autumn, Andreas Reize will begin his work as the new St. Thomas’ Cantor. In January, Johannes Lang will be installed as the new Thomas Organist. In full trust that God will bless our personal and congregational beginnings, we look forward with confidence to the tasks that lie ahead. Stay protected and blessed.
Yours truly, Pastor Martin Hundertmark
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
About 1800 years ago the Christian theologian, Justin Martyr, tells us that his brothers and sisters in the faith regarded the sacrament of Holy Communion so highly that whenever they would go on a journey they would take bread from the table of the assembly, wrap it, put it in their satchel, and eat from it as they traveled, as a constant reminder of God’s presence as they journeyed into the unknown.
The Bible is filled with images of bread and journeys. We hear four examples of this imagery today: In the Old Testament reading, we hear of God’s provision of bread for Elijah who must make a pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain of Horeb, or Sinai as we know it. There he will encounter the presence of God in all its holiness. The gospel reading refers to God’s providing bread to the children of Israel as they journey out of Egypt,
where they were slaves, to Mount Sinai where they would receive the Ten Commandments and learn to live in freedom. The psalmist refers to the presence of God to those who trust in God’s encompassing care just as God surrounded the encampment of the children of Israel as they journeyed day by day. The psalmist invites us to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”
But the greatest reference in the Bible to God and Bread is the declaration of Jesus, “I am the bread of life!” The Gospel of John bears witness to Jesus Christ through a series of metaphors: I am the bread of life; I am the light of the world; I am the gate for the sheep; I am the good shepherd; I am the way, and the truth, and the life; I am the true vine. All of these metaphors start out of the concreteness of human existence and point us to the power of God at work in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Our task today is to hear and respond to Jesus’ proclamation, “ I am the bread of life!” His declaration is a response to signs which Jesus himself presents to his disciples and to the crowds who have come out to hear him. The Gospel of John develops the proclamation of the gospel through a series of signs that are deeply rooted in the flesh of human existence. There are seven miracles which John calls signs:
The first was the changing of water into wine at the wedding at Cana. The second was the healing of the royal official’s son. The third was the healing of a lame man at the pool of Beth-zatha. The fourth sign is the feeding of the five thousand with bread and fish, and the fifth sign is Jesus’ walking on the sea. The sixth and seventh signs are the healing of the blind man and the resuscitation of Lazarus from the dead.
The gospel of John refers to these events as “signs.” It is important that we understand these signs in the Gospel of John in the way that the
evangelist would have us understand them. There are three levels of comprehension. First, there are the events themselves. Each one provokes a sense of wonder in response to human needs and anxiety. The signs are miraculous. The events contradict normal experience: water transformed to wine, the sick healed, the lame walk, the hungry are fed, the sea is subdued, the blind see and the dead are raised.
It would be a mistake for us living in a so-called “modern” age to think that the people of Jesus’ time were naive, gullible persons who lived in a fantasy world. Do you think that their world was all that different from ours? No. The world of Jesus’ day knew what it was like to live with limited resources, sickness, physical disabilities, starvation, blindness, and death. Each of the signs performed by Jesus was done in opposition to the problems that we confront in our world—ancient and modern. Think COVID!
A second function of the signs is to provoke awe within a world that seems to be so closed off from hope, faith, and love. I think that we have all known life in such restricted ways. We have faced moments when life seemed to be squeezing us in, and we feel most utterly alone as we try to dig our way out. And then something happens, something like a sign.
I have grown accustomed to signs like this in life. I can recall when I was writing and re-writing my dissertation. I was falling into a state of despair. All around me was help. Kathy has done everything to keep our home a place of nurture and care. The library was there. My advisor was doing his best. Somehow I could not find the element that brought it all together. To make matters worse a close friend had moved away. I can still remember some months later sitting at my computer staring at the screen when the doorbell rang. I went to the door with no expectation. When I opened the door, there was Michael standing there like an Indian chief saying, “How.”
I still remember how struck I was that he had unexpectedly returned. The world suddenly opened up. All the walls that had been folding in on me suddenly exploded. For some reason, I did not see defeat, but I saw possibility. I told Kathy that suddenly I knew I could finish my work. I realize that one should not over-interpret events like this, but I also realize that one should not under-interpret them either.
You have to exercise only a little imagination to see how the feeding of the 5,000 and the appearance of Jesus walking on the waves of the sea were perceived as signs. The hungry leave the towns and markets where food is stored securely. As they go to remote sections of Galilee they grow hungry and then are confronted with an abundance of bread and fish. This may not inform us about God, but the sign of the bread and fish at least reminds us to be open to the elusive presence of God.
The gospel tells us that the crowd is so impressed with this sign of Jesus that they begin to think about making Jesus king. Jesus could sense what was brewing, and so he quickly withdrew from them. He will be king, but not in any way that they—or we—could imagine. The crowd wants to take charge of the sign, but the sign is not a commodity to be possessed or hoarded.
We live in a time when the people are desperate for a sign. In some way, this explains the rise of populist politicians. For many, these movements and their leaders—simply in their contrariness and wild promises made—are taken as signs for many people because they are lost in society, isolated, and lonely. They are desperate for a sign which promises them help and significance. They believe far beyond belief, for example, when a charismatic figure declares, “I alone can fix it!”
But we know, brothers and sisters, that God does not come in and fix it. The world is a complicated, if not dangerous place. When the sacred breaks into this profane, mundane existence, there is little to do but stand in awe. That certainly is true with the fifth sign, Jesus’ speaking to
the disciples while prevailing over the waves of the treacherous sea. Of course, it is something to think about—Jesus walking on the water. The real sign in this story is Jesus’ identification of himself as “I am.” The translation in our reading today is sadly wrong and causes us to miss the direction of the sign.
Jesus does not say, “It is I.” He says, “I am.” God identifies himself before Moses at the burning bush as “I am.” The disciples are on the sea caught in the middle of the night. A storm begins to batter their boat. The threat of death closes in around them. Then Jesus appears and once again indicates his awesome presence in a great sign, his walking on the turbulent waters.
It is the same with all the signs presented in the Gospel of John. The seven signs are offered, but they do not exhaust their meaning. For ultimately the sign that will connect heaven and earth will be the cross on which Jesus willingly dies rather than make any claim for himself other than that he is the one whom God has sent. This is the third function of signs in the Gospel of John to lead us to the One who uses the most unexpected element to manifest the awesome power of God which transforms us so that we can trust and hope and love in this world. Jesus reveals the God who rather than exploiting all things is capable of giving all things. Jesus offers bread and presence, and by so doing he becomes the ultimate sign that negates itself and thereby points beyond to the grandeur of God whom we encounter in our life’s journey day by day whether we see it or not.
But we do see it, sisters and brothers! We see it in the bread of heaven, the body of Jesus Christ offered to us, and the world that God loves. Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:51)
Dear brothers and sisters, the bread that Jesus gives us is the heavenly bread that we have been eating since the congregation of Christ the King Church was founded 76 years ago as a part of the Swedish Lutheran tradition in the Augustana Lutheran Church. Pastor Kenneth Larson taught the budding congregation the importance of the Eucharist and we still sing the unaccompanied Swedish Setting for Holy Communion. Pastor Edwin Peterman calmly returned this congregation to the proper celebration of Holy Communion on every Lord’s Day. I was privileged to oversee an expansion of this congregation’s sacramental life that steadily shared Christ’s presence in the Eucharist through fellowship, music, care for others, and the ongoing call for justice in the public forum.
Now after the significant leadership of Pastor Duane Larson during difficult times of transition and the departure of Pastor Karin Liebster who ably led this congregation in the care of the liturgy, the development of formation for our children, and pastoral care, the congregation enters a time of crisis which presents both opportunity and danger. I am delighted that my colleague, Pastor Derr, is here to lead. Christ the King Lutheran Church is one of the finest congregations in the Evangelical Lutheran in America. So long as you continue to feed on the bread of heaven, you will do well as you continue your journey in faith, and God will provide the leadership for the future.
Kathy and I have been fed in many ways by many congregations, for which we are grateful to God. But the greatest congregation for us was, and is, YOU. You have maintained that fellowship grounded in the body and blood of Christ. You have born witness to the love of God by recognizing the signs of God’s merciful presence in the world without getting lost in the sign but by worshiping him to whom the sign points: the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This congregation has had a brilliant journey thus far. As long as you, like your spiritual ancestors, take the bread of heaven along on your journey, you will do fine, for it is on the spiritual journey that we “taste and see that the Lord is good.
And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your heart and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.